Defied the Medieval Gender Roles in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath”

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Women during the medieval era had distinct roles in everyday life that consisted of strict regulations. These women had to do anything that pleased their men and follow their instructions, as well as, conduct house chores. Geoffrey Chaucer; however, defied these norms when writing works of literature through extroverted characters. One of the characters in one of Chaucer’s major works is a woman whose demeanor is assertive, expressive, and confident.

In, The Wife of Bath’s, this woman tells a story about herself and the tribulations she has undergone in her life. These stories that reflect overreaching actions done by a woman are shared with the audience which in turn, make her a very memorable and successful female character. Most of the gender expectations originated from the Church and biblical history.

Anti-feminist feelings arose due to Eve causing the fall of Man. Women were perceived to be responsible for most of the suffering of men, therefore inferior and to be dominated by their husbands and men. Because women were thought to have caused so much suffering on behalf of mankind, they were to be controlled, held in check and encouraged not exhibit any outward signs of defiance or concern for themselves. Their purpose in life was to serve and dedicate to others their time and life at their own expense.

Chaucer’s first success is defying gender roles by contradicting the Bible, a well-respected book. It is important to note that Chaucer has his character go against the traditional Christian concept of the Church and assert that sex can also be for pleasure, not just for the sole purpose of procreation. In lines 65-68 , she states, “Where can ye saye in any manere age; that hye God defended marriage; By express word? I praye you, telleth me.; or where commanded he virginitee?”. Here, we see Chaucer questioning the Bible through the Wife of Bath’s lens. She implies that the Bible does not state that virginity is the ‘right’ way to go, that it is “no comandement” (line 73).

The Wife of Bath presented the notion that the stereotypes that locked men and women into distinct roles deserved to be challenged. She was certain that women could do as they please without having to worry about any norms established by society. Why not re-marry until you’re happy? Who says women cannot be in control of their husbands? She ultimately challenged beliefs that were blindly accepted around her and she did so without a second thought. The Wife of Bath was expected to have the feminine traits, but she would not accept or express that through her usage of words nor actions. Why should the positive traits be reserved only for men? Being born a woman should not automatically exempt a woman from being cast into a more positive position within society.

Another one of Chaucer’s successes is the fact that his character in the Wyf of Bath’s is so unique and unforgettable is that he casts her outside of the gender roles as an extrovert. Bordering on the controversial but lightened by his use of humor, his character comes to life with unspoken feelings and ideas that speak out against the norms and traditions holding them down by society. The Wife of Bath is such a character; it is ironic that her title includes the word ‘wife’ when the word has a loyal, submissive ring to it given the context in which she was developed.

Upon reading “Canterbury Tales”, it becomes quite obvious that she defies the common notion of what a medieval wife should be. Instead, the Wife of Bath represents ideas that are far ahead of her time. It is not that women in her time did not feel or secretly agree with her non-traditional thoughts, but most did not speak about it. Chaucer brought to life the first medieval feminist.

Chaucer’s character strongly believes that women are not the only ones made for reproducing the human race. She asserts that men are just as responsible as women. “Glose whoso wol, and saye bothe up and down; That they were maked for purgacioun; Of urine, and oure bothe things smale; Was eek to knowe a female from a male, And for noon other cause- saye ye no?” (lines 125-129). Chaucer expresses the fight against male establishment through the Wife of Bath fight back against the oppression against women. She, in turn, ends up treating her husbands in the same oppressive manner. It is interesting to note that in her rants against men being the controlling force in marriages, she herself was a bully to her husbands.

That makes her successful in fighting the male establishment. This also makes it difficult to interpret Chaucer’s intentions in creating a strong women character advocating for her due rights. By vocalizing her thoughts and what were most likely many women’s thoughts of his day, he gives an identity and power to those without a voice. The wife of bath’s last husband praised and believed in society norms and highly agreed that women should follow society norms. In the Prologue, she describes a fight she has awith her fifth husband. She rips pages out of his book and he hits her on the head. She exaggerates by stating that she will die, “Now wol I die: I may no longer speke” (line 816). He replies, out of fear, “‘My owene trewe wif, Do as thee lust the terme of al thy life; Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estat’” (lines 825-827).

The audience is shown how manipulative the wife of bath can be with men. This reflects her control and authority over men. She is able to get things her way in a mischievous yet wicked manner. The Wife of Bath defies women norms as she finds advantages in the fact that for the most part, she always ends up seeing her husbands die. Some of the benefits of being a widow includes not having to answer to a husband and making independent decisions. That she was also literate and knowledgeable was in her favor. She has economic independence which is a major defying norm that goes against the male establishment. However, she gained all of her wealth because of the husbands she encountered. She uses her manipulation and skills to obtain wealth and pleasure.

Although in a sense, this contradicts the fight for male establishment, this defies male establishment as she controlled these men with her reverse psychology. This shows how far she is willing to go get these luxuries which reasserts her female dominance. The fact that Chaucer created a Woman pilgrim traveling alone, without her husband, speaks in volumes in itself. Rather than a weak, dependent wife unable to be without her man, Chaucer invented a strong-willed, at times outright defiant woman who needs nobody but herself in all areas of her life. She does not need a man for her physical, mental, or emotional security.

If anything, a man needs her. This is such a notable character because of the time period in that which she lived. The foresight and progressive ideas on Chaucer’s part, and his willingness to apply it to a character is proof that Chaucer was ahead of his time. Another aspect that Chaucer contributed to developing the success against male establishment in his character was the speech itself. It went against the expectations of a female in medieval times. Her prologue was the longest out of all the others, and this occurs in a society that expects the women to be quiet and not monopolize any conversation. Not only did she dominate the speech with those around her, but she had no qualms about it, either.

The constant usage of the pronoun “I” in her prologue indicates control and assertiveness. Not only does it create a closer relationship with the audience, it also creates her personality, her sense of confidence. The repetition of the word “wol” in the beginning of the Prologue also shows her passion and determination to want more. The content of her speech also defied any good sense of a woman in her day. She displayed greed, pride and no remorse for her sinful and lustful life. Her quest for power is also evident through the lack of interruption of her lengthy speech. It was evident when The Pardoner tried to gain control of the speech twice, and then the Wife of Bath was successful at blocking his attempts. She was so successful that no other interruptions were to follow which portrays her dominance over men.

Chaucer is very successful in portraying and conveying the female dominance over a man through Alisoun’s lens. Her confidence, determination, assertiveness, and authoritative manner gives us a different perspective that was not so popular during the medieval times. In those times, women were looked down upon and men were the masters of intelligence and the human race in general. The defying gender roles portrayed in this prologue and tale show that there were women who did feel without a voice and without the liberty of expressing oneself and being true to oneself. Chaucer expresses the joy in being a woman and the power a woman really has despite her restrictions.

Cite this paper

Defied the Medieval Gender Roles in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath”. (2021, Dec 23). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/defied-the-medieval-gender-roles-in-chaucers-the-wife-of-bath/

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